'Even if the media is partisan, the BJP, governing at the Centre, has the most to lose if India descends into widespread communal violence.'
'Fanning the flames either by vested political interests or by partisan reports only plays into the hands of those seek a conflagration,' argues Sankrant Sanu.
A recent article in the Washington Post leads with this screaming headline: 'A lynching over beef-eating is part of a rising tide of Hindu nationalism in Modi's India' (external link).
This representation has several flaws, but it would be unfair to pick on the Washington Post alone. The Post article and headline summarises the narrative that has been built up in the media in India, culminating in the coverage of the killing at Dadri.
Almost identical headlines are found in other international media with strange synchronicity, such as the Time article titled 'In India, Support for Lynching of Alleged Beef Eater Spurs Fears of Rising Hindu Nationalism' (external link).
To take apart the manufactured consent leading up to this headline is a tricky task. The narrative is now the established truth that is now self-evident -- a counter narrative now assumes the burden of proof.
Nonetheless, the effort is worth making for one simple reason. I share the goal that, in a charitable interpretation, drives the headline makers -- a wish to pre-empt an escalation of Hindu-Muslim violence in India.
So let me begin with a fictional story, of Harry and Mark, living in a small town in the American Heartland. Dog killing is banned in this town, and, in any case, domesticated dog meat is illegal though its wilder cousins, wolves and jackals, are sometimes eaten.
Now Harry's dog has been missing for two weeks and he is beside himself with worry. This dog is not only a pet he is emotionally attached to, but also it is a prize dog, a significant part of Harry's net worth and a source of regular income for him from dog shows. Harry is having a gathering at his house with his friends when the children break in breathlessly with the news.
They saw Harry's neighbour Mark put out a garbage bag. The bag split open and out fell a pile of dog bones and, in the darkness, they saw what appeared to be their dog's tag.
Now people in the town generally believed, though it may just have been part of the rumour mill, that Mark had a taste for dog meat.
With the additional citing of dog remains, the rumour turned into certainty and Harry and his friends rushed out with sticks and bricks, and, since this tale is set in the American heartland, with a few guns. They confronted Mark, who denied eating their dog, but the mob would have little of it. In mob-think, Mark was killed.
Now no one in their right mind would defend Harry and the mob's actions. They need to face justice for their vigilante violence. But the story 'Man lynched for eating dog meat in hick America' is not quite the truth either.
Mark was not killed because he ate dog meat that he had purchased from the market (presumably from wild wolves, since any other kind was illegal). People may view his diet distastefully, but that is his business. He was killed for (what the mob perceived) the theft of a prized dog that was not only stolen, but also mercilessly killed and eaten.
'How does it matter,' one may ask. 'Isn't the mob violence equally heinous in either case?'
Yes it is, but the real story is quite different. The story of a 'Man lynched for eating beef' may be useful to stitch into a narrative of rising intolerance to link it to a beef ban controversy in distant Maharashtra, but that is not what happened.
Let us see the sequence of events (external link) in Dadri.
As in the hypothetical story of Harry and Mark, this story too involves theft and killing of a prized household animal and is not about dietary preferences for beef, as repeated media accounts make it out to be. (Times of India: A beef-eating Hindu demands his rights (external link); Indian Express: Dadri: Mob kills man, injures son over 'rumours' that they ate beef (external link); BBC: In India, Support for Lynching of Alleged Beef Eater Spurs Fears of Rising Hindu Nationalism (external link).
To understand the relationship of rural India to cows, the story of Harry and his dog is not far off. In many poor families, cows are a significant part of household wealth. They are also providers and there is an emotional connection as with a household member or pet.
Even without bringing in religion there are economic, emotional and cultural reasons on why cow slaughter is sensitive. Add to this several hundred years worth of history of resistance against cow slaughter and one can see that the sentimental attachment to the cow cannot be waived off on an imagined secular utopia where these concerns are quaint and irrelevant.
This does not seek to justify the mob's action. The police have arrested the suspects and they must be dealt with severely for charges of murder, whether or not a cow was killed. But our interest here is really in media coverage and distortions.
he 'someone killed for eating beef' story makes the entire episode incomprehensible other than from the prism of religiously motivated irrational savages and even crazier police for getting the meat tested.
However, when seen from the angle of the potential theft and killing of a prized domestic animal, it allows a more informed situation where we can answer the following questions:
Why was the meat tested? So what if it was beef?
A number of articles were aghast at the incomprehensible need for the meat found to be tested. 'Why? How does it matter?' A beef-eating Hindu demands his rights (external link)
This is, of course, true if the issue is about someone's dietary preferences. But if indeed the story is about potentially a stolen cow or calf, then testing the meat is naturally part of evidence gathering for what happened.
Why were the villagers angry at the media?
There are reports that after the initial set of stories when media-persons went to visit the village they were attacked (external link). The villagers were angry at what they considered biased media reporting.
If indeed the story was about a missing calf, while the reporting was about dietary preferences, this anger would make sense.
Was a calf actually stolen and, if so, did Akhlaq steal it?
Whether or not a calf was killed, there is no dispute a man was killed. The murderers of Akhlaq are guilty and must be punished in accordance with the law. But it is not the media's role to play judge and jury.
What does this have to do with 'Modi's India'?
This is where the reporting veers from potentially benign mistakes to weaving a pre-conceived and dangerous narrative. Even before Modi had been elected, this narrative had been put in place, with warnings from 'eminent' people that 'If Modi is elected, it will bode ill for India's future' (external link).
Thus facts are found to fit into this narrative.
Incidents of petty theft and vandalism in churches are turned into attacks on Christians, even when the data showed that these incidents had not increased from the previous government and that Hindu temples had faced far more attacks.
Similarly the story of a beef ban (external link) for a Jain festival in Mahrashtra is made part of the narrative even after it was pointed out that the ban existed from the previous government.
Neither is violence over cow slaughter new. Cow slaughter related violence (external link) has happened repeatedly (external link) in India even when Congress was in power (external link) at the Centre.
This has been a serious issue even in pre-Partition India for Mahatma Gandhi to explicitly exhort (external link): 'I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious.'
To pretend this is a new issue linked to the 'rising tide of Hindu nationalism in Modi's India' is part of the distortion filter.
The problem with the narrative is that it may very well bring about the very situation that it ostensibly seeks to avoid.
The Twitter trend #MediaWantsRiots (external link) was a reflection of the fear. There were 133 communal riots in Uttar Pradesh in the past year. The primary responsibility for this state, of course, falls on the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government.
This is not to absolve numerous stupid and insensitive statements by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, who equally need to step up to calm the flames. Even if the media is partisan, the BJP, governing at the Centre, has the most to lose if India descends into widespread communal violence. Fanning the flames either by vested political interests or by partisan reports only plays into the hands of those seek a conflagration.
Rather than breathlessly tout self-sure assertions based on anecdotal evidence, we must look at hard evidence if communal incidents have risen under Modi and specifically in BJP-ruled states. Home ministry data shows there were over 644 communal incidents in 2014, the number has reportedly decreased (external link) from previous years.
On the other hand, partial year data (external link) from 2015 did show an increase, though a significant portion of this came from non-BJP ruled UP and Bihar. We need a cool-headed analysis to determine statistical significance and related causes.
In a vast multi-religious country the size of India, with the largest Muslim minority population in the world, Hindus and Muslims by and large live peacefully together. The Modi government, too, as a whole has stayed largely clear of religious legislative action and put its focus on development even to the disappointment of some of its avid supporters.
The media must exercise care to not become a party in using pre-election fear-mongering of ill under Modi's India to drive the coverage and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, it won't really matter a whit to the Washington Post or to America. The people affected will be in the streets and villages of India.
Sankrant Sanu (@sankrant) is an author and entrepreneur based in Gurgaon and Seattle. He blogs at sankrant.org. The views expressed are personal.